Backyard Conservation

Blooming Bee Lawns and Raingardens


Concrete jungle. Urban sprawl. Megalopolis. Cities would seem to be the bane of all that is green and natural. Yet the urban landscape—that densely built, human-focused ecosystem where so many of us live—is proving to be a seedbed of conservation activity. It’s happening right in our own backyards.

Those native wildflowers you planted for pollinators? Your raingarden? The flowering plants you gave permission to grow in your lawn because they attract bees? These are examples of a new framework for approaching conservation called reconciliation ecology, the practice of creating habitat in available areas of densely-built places where humans live and work.


The basic idea is simple. A major goal of conservation is protecting habitat. For example, we might set aside land, as we do for national parks, or restore habitat that has been damaged, such as large-scale programs to heal coastal ecosystems. Reconciliation ecology doesn’t replace these approaches to conservation. Instead, it recognizes and acts on opportunities to support biodiversity where there is less natural space, even in places as small as your little patch of green.

Backyard HabitatThe ecologist Michael Rosenzweig originated the idea of adjusting human surroundings to support other species. “We can learn how to reconcile our own use of the land with that of many other species. Maybe even most of them,” he writes in his book, Win-Win Ecology, published in 2003. “If they have access to our farm fields, our forests, our city parks, schoolyards, military bases, timberlands, yes, even to our backyards, then they have a chance.”

So, you might create a bee-friendly yard by completely converting your grass lawn into a groundcover of low-growing flowers. This works in areas with little foot traffic. Or you could introduce flowering plants into an existing lawn, in areas where people walk a lot. We don’t want to get lost in the weeds here, but note that certain turf grasses (slow-growing, with narrow blades) work better than others, as do certain flower species. What is important is that you can create habitat for bees while retaining the use of your lawn.

You can also simply plant certain species of native wildflowers in parts of your garden. This creates forage for pollinators. Some native wildflowers can do double duty if they are planted in a raingarden, which helps to clean the watershed. When it rains, storm water typically flows down driveways, roads and sidewalks into public sewers, picking up pollutants on the way and eventually emptying into local lakes and streams. A raingarden diverts the storm water, which is taken up by deep-rooted native plants or is cleaned as it infiltrates the ground. If it rains an inch over 24 hours, just one properly installed raingarden in a typical Minneapolis yard can capture more than 500 gallons of storm water.

“Each property is a significant contributor,” says Rich Harrison, a landscape architect with Metro Blooms. “And when raingardens are installed throughout a watershed, they can have a massive positive impact on water quality and habitat.”

Point well taken. As habitats, our yards are miniscule compared to, say, national parks. But look at a map. When we add up all the yards in our cities and suburbs, they constitute a sizable patchwork of green space (i.e. potential habitat). Individual actions, taken together, can lead to critical mass. The backyard landscaping practices that support habitat in our own backyards really do have the potential to effect change far beyond.



Aleli Balagtas is a freelance writer interested in gardening ecologically.